Custine, Tocqueville, and Intellectual Autonomy in Comparative Politics

By Tristan Gans
2011, Vol. 3 No. 04 | pg. 2/2 |

The necessity of subjectivity having been demonstrated, Custine makes the case that he is the best man for the job. A large portion of the first several letters is devoted to his personal history, which itself can be reduced to his credentials as a Russian scholar: “My first sentiment was that of a fear of life, a sentiment which must be more or less participated in by all” (25). Not only does he assert that he has lived his life through terror at the hands of the French Revolution (and afterwards through the deaths of friends and, presumably, ostracism relating to his sexuality), but also that he is most capable of relating the political culture of Russia diplomatically: acknowledging concerns similar to Tocqueville’s regarding gratitude and propriety towards his hosts, he professes his ability to maintain “the proper manner of expressing severe truths” (7). These facts of his personal history, in combination with his professed impartiality and what he views as his flattering convictions as to Russia’s “greatness and political importance” (7), constitute his credentials as an interpreter of Russian political culture.

Like Tocqueville, Custine makes several references to Kant. Custine initially seems to have taken the wrong message from Kant’s works, for example ascribing the happiness of the German people to their autocratic government. Custine’s change of heart relates directly to his realization that German despotism is “mitigated by the mildness of its customs” (210), and that true despotism in fact suppresses the intellect itself. This is obviously the opposite of enlightenment, and Custine concludes that measures must be taken to ensure the freedom of the intellect through the separation of powers.10

However, despite his liberal conclusions, Custine finds himself in “a nation of slaves” (210). Finding himself the only truly enlightened intellect worthy of social scientific analysis, his account is necessarily subjective. Furthermore, as an enlightened aristocrat accustomed to the mild politics of France (compared to Russia, at least), Custine comes to understand his own basic love of enlightenment—a subtextual development of the work, enabled by its subjective format. This love of intellectual maturity and autonomy, shared with Tocqueville, allows us to compare the two, and their subject matter, on equal footing.

Governance of the Intellect

Both Tocqueville and Custine posit that the management of conflicting intellectual activities and desires is a central concern of government. Furthermore, they agree that such conflicts are inevitable, but that the ideal government will promote the enlightenment of all while maximizing order and security. These claims are not particularly remarkable, but the stylistic manner in which they are embodied by two Frenchmen at this particular point in history draws interesting parallels to the ideological choices of American and Russian societies that would define the next 150 years of world politics.

American democracy, for Tocqueville, represented the latest phase in a centuries-long trend towards complete equality and maturity of intellect. Through universal intellectual empowerment Tocqueville envisioned a dynamic political equilibrium, as enlightened minds found rational arguments for and against their elected peers. Custine saw in imperial Russia a similarly idealized equality of intellect through an opposite form, with the collective intellect reduced to an empty static through the actions of one ubiquitous authority.11 Although the rhetoric may have changed dramatically from time to time, those approaches to the rights of citizens did not significantly change for over a century.12

Ultimately, Tocqueville and Custine chose their literary approaches because this question of intellect and governing ideology is not so much one of political documents and traditions as one of culture. Tocqueville believed that American citizens were adopting the values of Western political philosophy, and succeeding due to the absence of Western political baggage.13

Everyday citizens were able to forego the irrational, emotional relationship with government seen in Europe and construct a political culture based on rational decisions, separations of authority, and an independent devotion to justice. This stance towards political culture, with the emphasis on rational and impersonal collective decisions, de-emphasizes the role of any particular individual; this stance is embodied in Democracy in America. Custine, on the other hand, observed that Russian citizens could only exercise their human rights of self-expression and self-assertion through deception and evasion. They therefore constructed, on an everyday basis, a deceptive and evasive political culture in order to maximize the impact of the individual. This approach is likewise manifested in Custine’s literary description of Russian culture.


De Custine, Astolphe. Letters from Russia. 1843 Translation, edited and revised by Anka Muhlstein, New York: New York Review of Books, 2002.

De Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America. Translated and edited by Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Foucault, Michel. Two Lectures and The Art of Telling the Truth. These lectures are supplied in Critique and Power: Recasting the Foucault/Habermas Debate. Edited by Michael Kelly. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994

Kant, Immanuel. What is Enlightenment? Public domain. Web:


  1. Please see the “Works Consulted” section on page 10 for bibliographical information on any works mentioned herein. Context should be sufficient for identification of all parenthetical citations.
  2. See Kant’s essay entitled What is Enlightenment?
  3. This is somewhat misleading, given Tocqueville’s placement in what many term the Romantic Era. However, even Romantics such as Shelley and Byron employed and reacted to Enlightenment Rationality and in their public lives were active critics of philosophy and government. The term “Enlightenment Rationality” was popularized by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in the 1950s, but their understanding of it is generally agreed to be faithful to the methods and views of Kant, Tocqueville, and Custine.
  4. See Kant and Foucault. This interpretation of history is well establish and not generally disputed.
  5. This change of discourse is best described by Michel Foucault in his Two Lectures.
  6. For the purposes of argument, please accept ‘all’ to mean ‘all white males of sufficient age.’ Tocqueville does address the oppression of Indians, blacks, and other minorities (not so much women), but this has little effect on the overall presentation of his work.
  7. This is obviously not really the case, but at any rate the qualifications for public or semi-public intellectuality were and are more easily met in America than most other countries.
  8. Tocqueville also describes his version of a fully enlightened, utopian society in the beginning of Democracy in America. His views differ from Kant’s, although this may have much to do with the political conditions of Prussia in the 18th century that influenced Kant’s writing: What is Enlightenment? was commissioned by Frederich II, whom Kant duly praises as an ‘enlightened’ ruler. Furthermore, Kant revised his views after observing the French Revolution, and again after its devolution to the Reign of Terror. Tocqueville is far more comfortable with the idea of constitutional, representative government than Kant, as will be Custine.
  9. Please note that ‘subject’ in this case, and in all cases unless contextually indicated, refers to an individual capable of sustained consciousness.
  10. His views may still not be confused with Tocqueville’s: though Custine advocates constitution in his introduction, he remarks several times that power should be granted to an aristocracy because “the soul of aristocracy is pride, the spirit of democracy is envy” (75).
  11. Theoretically, this authority would provide the one credible intellect in the country. However, for various reasons previously mentioned (most specifically the Potemkin Villages), the emperor is established as untrustworthy. Perhaps he is simply too inaccessible, but more likely the mere fact of his renunciation of enlightenment itself as a social value reduces him to the same servile state as his subjects.
  12. The proposition that Russia’s political ideology has actually shifted since the fall of the USSR is a difficult question that remains to be answered.
  13. I.e. historical baggage, because of the emphasis in Europe on historical tradition as political legitimacy. Tocqueville argues that America’s success relates to Americans’ replacement of tradition with documented legislation.

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